Purrfection: How the video game Stray banished cats

Cat lover Enzo Yaksic was immediately drawn to the recently released Stray video game, which allowed him to explore a colourful, kaleidoscopic subterranean world full of puzzles as a cat avatar.

He was surprised that his own cat was just as fascinated. “My cat, Hobbes, was charmed by ‘Stray’ from the moment I loaded it onto screen. He’s watching the cat’s every move,” Yaksic said.

Thousands of cat owners have taken to social media to post videos of their pets reacting to the game, and the Cats Watching Stray Twitter account now has more than 37,000 followers.

The phenomenon wowed developers, who say they had no idea it would induce madness. “When the cats in the studio started reacting to what was happening on our screens, we thought we were going in the right direction,” Swann Martin-Raget of French studio BlueTwelve told AFP.

“But we never thought there would be so many cats trying to jump on the TV.” Stray is far from the only game to feature an animal as the protagonist. From Dog’s Life and Goat Simulator to the wild wolf in Okami, there are many examples. But cats were rare – and “Stray” proves to be the surprise hit of the year.

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“Real Passion”

The game’s feline protagonist is modeled after Murtaugh, a stray cat adopted by the BlueTwelve co-founders, and Oscar, another team member’s beloved pet. Many team members own cats, including Martin-Raget, whose two housemates are known as Tao and Litchi.

He says creating a realistic animal was a huge challenge, but the team managed to get the computer cat to purr when requested, meow, curl up for a nap and, of course, take tremendous pleasure in banging furniture deface.

“We couldn’t make a cat game without also building a couch for it to scratch its claws on,” says Martin-Raget. “We made this game with real passion for our companions.”

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It is the top rated game of the year on Steam, a platform for downloading games, and enjoys a rating of 83/100 on Metacritic. Some critics have criticized it for its simplistic adventure, but most praise the graphics, the dreamlike atmosphere and the sense of freedom conveyed by the feline protagonist. And feline reviewers seem to generally agree.

“Every time I play, the silhouette of his two ears obscures the bottom of the screen,” says Curtis Amrein of Houston, USA, of his short-haired companion, 17-year-old Bebe. Yaksic, a Boston-based researcher, tells AFP that eight-year-old Hobbes reacts to danger and hides from the bad guys, just like his computer colleague.

“I wonder if I’m stressing Hobbes as he tends to look around and think there’s another cat in the house before he sees the cat from ‘Stray’ on screen,” he told AFP.

‘Very natural’

Animal behaviorist JoAnna Puzzo of Britain’s Battersea Dogs and Cats Home told US website GameSpot that the realism of the animated cat was key to eliciting reactions among real cats.

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“They really picked up a lot of very natural feline behaviors,” she said of the developers, noting the virtual animal’s grooming, squeaking, and scratching habits. “They also have some nice subtle behaviors like dilating their pupils when he’s very alert, turning their ears off, and being defensive.”

Another sign of the excitement for Stray is that fans have created “mods” – modifications that allow players to change the main character’s appearance. For a more relaxed approach, players can choose to eat lasagna and eat the cartoon ginger “Garfield”.

For those who like it extra cute, there’s Marie, the gray and white kitten from Disney’s The Aristocats. More controversially, enthusiasts have strayed into where cats are notoriously afraid to step: the world of dogs, where dog lovers can transform their avatar into a cute puppy. — AFP